Day 1 – An introduction to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

7 May

Arriving early in the morning, meant that breakfast lasting until 11am was a great idea. I made it for 10:40am after a few hours sleep that were only interrupted by housekeeping trying to make up the room. Barely used it deary.

The restaurant wasn’t exactly crowded. In fact I was the only one in the ornate,  heavily decorated hexagonal room. Eggs, bread, mini pizzas (which would have been OK at 7am) and some meat in the the shape of small balls. Decent enough.  Wide selection of yogurts, cereal and cold meats and cheese.  Peach or pomegranate juice.

Read up on Ashgabat from the only travel guide I could find. Studied the map intently. Couldn’t quite open eyes fully yet though. Braved the outside. Surprisingly OK temperature,  but it was early. Warnings of 40 degrees later.

Surrendered my passport to the authorities for some box ticking.

Chatted with Carolyn who didn’t seem to have had much sleep.  In a past life she looked after children and farmers. The other two couples on the trip are apparently farmers, so they may need to watch out.

Max showed us to the local corner shop and we had a browse. Lots of sweets on offer despite a warning in the tour guide that there wouldn’t be.

Also browsed the local hotel shop which was offering camel hair scarves (70%) for £15. No problem finding fridge magnets either.

Agreed to meet later to have a walk into town and food together. But before that I managed to indulge in a siesta.

The hotel is right next to the circus – not a big top, but a huge round building.  Wandered around the outside in my shorts with white legs proudly on display.  Got a few stares from the few locals that were out. It’s like a ghost town. Does anyone actually live here?

Joined Max and Carolyn and walked slowly into town trying to stick to the shady spots where possible. It wasn’t always possible and I think the temperature was touching 38°C by this point. I am developing a pinkish glow.

We arrived in a park with fountains and statues of men in strange hats.  The live women also wear strange head gear.  Lots of junior jehovahs witnesses walking home from school.  It may be a Muslim country but figure hugging green dresses seem to be de rigour for all the young woman.  As Max delightfully pointed out, the only other people wearing shorts were 13 year old girls.

In the centre, the streets were earily quiet. Four lane highways have the odd car only.  Preppie would have been so easy. (You need to be a certain age to understand that one.)

We headed to the Russian Market where I asked Max if it would be OK to take photos.  No sooner had he said yes, and I did, than a rather stern looking man supervised the deletion of the aforementioned photo from my camera. Oh well, the photo count may be less than normal.

On leaving the market I asked one of the 4 souvenir stalls if they had a flag.  Two minutes later he was back with a flag at the agreed price. He did refuse a photo with him though. Change was in fridge magnets.  An unexpected currency.

We walked a bit more, being careful to avoid showing cameras to any uniformed person. In particular, photos of the multi golden domes of the presidential palace were strictly out of bounds.  I did chance my arm by asking a policeman if I could take a photo of an as yet unidentified monument in the middle of the road with horses on the top.  He said yes! Wow.

Max led us to an outdoor cafe with music blaring – karaoke style. Efficent waitresses showed us to seats underneath a mulberry tree. A cat prowled the ground. Misters doused water at regular intervals over everyone and their food.

We browsed the menu whilst the kitchen set themselves on fire.  Smoke billowed everywhere.

I ended up going for a traditional Turkmenistan meal – Kakmach, which was very nice pieces of beef with onions, soft and raw, in oil. Tasted better than it sounds. Max introduced us to some dip for the bread. As the food was served, the mulberry tree started to shed. Hundreds of tiny balls of sticky green went everywhere.  Into the salad, beer, rice and dip. As it continued, other tables asked for umbrellas to stick in the plastic tables. Our table had no hole.

As we had just about contained the damage, the rain started. The other diners rushed under cover leaving us as the only table to take the brunt of the brief storm.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Despite also suffering chip envy from one of the neighbouring tables.

Trying to catch a taxi back proved a little harder than the guide book would suggest.  Official yellow cabs drove on by with their light on. Eventually a random car stopped and took us back to the hotel.  3 people, 5 minutes – £1.20 (TM$6). That’s the official local price – no tourist surcharge.

Although Max was off to the airport in the early hours to pick up the rest of the group, I persuaded Carolyn that a Turkmen vodka to finish the night was a good idea.  A random woman at the bar suggested shots followed by apple juice. The waitress delivered these to the table not quite believing that they were for Carolyn and I.

Kharasho. Spasiba.

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